IPinCH PROFILE — Rosemary Coombe: Thinking Globally to Expand Local Possibilities

Rosemary Coombe


As a legal anthropologist, Rosemary Coombe has taught on intellectual property (IP) issues at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law for 12 years and has published widely on the ways IP shapes cultural life. 


Her interest in IP as a way of protecting Indigenous cultural heritage was galvanized by a phone call from Industry Canada’s IP Directorate in 1998. The IP Director­ate was seeking advice on Canada’s obligations in protecting traditional knowledge under the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Given her combination of IP expertise and an­thropological interest in Indigenous concerns, Rosemary was well placed to write a report on the scope and consequences of granting such protections, specifically considering whether the issue was better understood as a human rights obligation. Rosemary was drawn to the chal­lenges posed by a question transcending con­ventional legal fields, and as she learned more about human rights in the context of Indigenous environmental concerns, she became particular­ly interested in the Indigenous Peoples Caucus of the CBD.

Compelled to embark on ethnographic re­search in the international arenas in which In­digenous environmental and cultural heritage concerns were being considered, Rosemary found her interests becoming increasingly global in orientation. Although the relationship between Indigenous and state representatives at global forums is often fraught with tension, she cred­its the Canadian government with sending a fair number of Indigenous delegates to international meetings, thus helping to create a growing core of Indigenous people with ever more sophisti­cated expertise in international policy negotia­tion. Rosemary notes that Canadian Indigenous peoples have a long history of global advocacy and leadership and that “strong and savvy In­digenous intellectuals have done incredible work to get the UN Declaration on the Rights of In­digenous Peoples passed” while introducing In­digenous concerns into a range of international policy-making arenas.

Rosemary was motivated to join IPinCH after working on previous projects with a number of the committed, intellectually ambitious people who were involved in crafting IPinCH. For ex­ample, she contributed to the two volumes re­sulting from Catherine Bell’s “Protection and Repatriation of First Nation Cultural Heritage in Canada” project, along with IPinCH Director George Nicholas and several other IPinCH team members. She first met George when he co-au­thored a chapter with Alison Wylie for the volume The Ethics of Cultural Appropriation, co-edited by IPinCHer James Young, which also included contributions from IPinCH team members Maui Solomon, Kelly Bannister, and Daryl Pullman.

Rosemary is Co-chair of the Working Group on Customary, Conventional and Vernacular Legal Forms. She describes her interests as ex­ploring “the intersection between legal systems as a productive space for the emergence of in­tercultural norms” and “the way different forms of law come into dialogic negotiation and ten­sion when issues of Indigenous cultural heritage are under consideration.”

Rosemary is currently co-editing Dynamic Fair Dealing: Creating Canadian Cultural Heri­tage Online with Darren Wershler and Martin Zeilinger. The forthcoming volume explores necessary changes to copyright law in digital contexts. Addressing fair dealing as a practice, not simply a category in Canadian law, the book shows how Canadians in digital environments understand themselves to be acting fairly by ex­ploring emerging ethics with respect to cultural goods—in publishing, music, and museums, for example—in post-colonial contexts. Rosemary shows how new publics are enabled by technol­ogy as relationships of respect and reciprocity are forged pertaining to cultural heritage, sug­gesting that we would be well advised to look to such practices for the purposes of forging na­tional cultural policy. Several other IPinCH mem­bers have also contributed chapters, including George Nicholas and Nicole Aylwin, Rosemary’s Working Group research assistant, who co-au­thored a chapter with Rosemary and contributed her own chapter addressing the principles of cultural diversity.

To put the idea of dynamic fair dealing into practice, Rosemary created Artmob (www.art­mob.ca), an arts content management system offering a series of online tools for organiza­tions and institutions to adopt and adapt so as to engage fairly with the cultural material they digitally archive. The architecture of the system was designed to support fair dealing and to pro­tect attribution and other moral rights. It was also designed to enable users to contribute to knowledge with regard to cultural heritage, and ensuring originating communities are able to express concerns, while encouraging dialogue about a work and its history, thus supporting those with IP and cultural heritage rights to forge new relationships. The project is a testament to Rosemary’s conviction that IP can and should be fashioned to address a diversity of needs, sensi­tive to social justice issues and the particularities of Canada’s need to decolonize its public institu­tions.

This profile first appeared in the IPinCH Newsletter Vol 3.1+2 (Spring 2012).

Photograph courtesy Rosemary Coombe.